In case you haven't noticed, Hollywood has a bit of a revenue problem. There have been numerous headlines that film attendance declined an amazing 12 percent from last year. But as Chris Anderson recently mentioned on his Long Tail Weblog, the decline in Hollywood's box office is merely following a trend that stretches back over five years.
In 2003, one of the more far-fetched excuses for the decline was overuse of texting cell phones by moviegoers who could immediately IM their friends from a shopping mall multiplex that "THS MOVIE SUX, MAN!!!" and quickly kill a film's reputation faster than Hollywood ad campaigns could build it.
This year, much of the talk has been about the increasingly obvious politicization of Hollywood movies, and the very public campaigning by Hollywood celebrities against President Bush during the 2004 election year. As screenwriter Craig Titley noted in September, there's no doubt a fair amount of Red State voters are holding a grudge from Hollywood's political excesses last year. "Publicly picking a side is bound to alienate you from half of everyone", Titley writes. "If just a small percentage of these moviegoers turned their backs on Hollywood, it could have a devastating effect on the bottom line."
There's an element of truth in each explanation: While the cell phone excuse is certainly flimsy, other forms of advanced technologies have taken revenues away from movies, whose underlying technology is over 100 years old, and whose current form and structure go back to the rise of talkies in the early 1930s.
And the lack of positive Hollywood films to commemorate the bravery displayed on 9/11 by firemen and rescue workers, the passengers of Flight #93, as well as American soldiers who have fought to liberate Afghanistan and Iraq has been startling.
The Anti-Studio Studio System
Andrew Breitbart, the co-author, with Mark Ebner, of Hollywood, Interrupted, and the West Coast Editor of The Drudge Report, explained to me recently that Hollywood's current star driven-production system plays a huge factor in Tinseltown's woes.
"Just like the old studio system needed to be overturned", Breitbart observes, "so does the current anti-studio system. The current system is one in which stars have undue power, and they're not necessarily the best arbiters of taste. As a matter of fact, since they're the ones in charge, and artists in Hollywood tend to be left of center, and tend to agree with one another, and tend to not really hear the other side whatsoever, I think that the disconnect that exists in Hollywood, which far exceeds just the political realm, is best represented, and is easiest seen, through the political realm".
Using George Clooney's new Syriana as one of his examples, Breitbart says, "I thought that Hollywood, in another era, would be, by virtue of the marketplace, trying to appease the masses. And in a post-9/11 world, there would have been countless movies that expressed the heroism that existed on that utterly important day". Instead, Hollywood spent the first three years after 9/11 in a period that James Lileks once dubbed, "The golden era of beating around the bush".
This was followed in 2004 by the golden era of beating up the Bush, with numerous lefty films such as Fahrenheit 9/11, The Day After Tomorrow, the inferior remake of The Manchurian Candidate, and others.
Finally, in 2005, Hollywood began to address terrorism and its accompanying geopolitics head-on. Well, sort of, at first. As columnist Mark Steyn wrote this past spring:
"The Sean Penn thriller, The Interpreter, was originally about Muslim terrorists blowing up a bus in New York. So, naturally, Hollywood called rewrite. Now the bus gets blown up by African terrorists from the little-known republic of Matobo. 'We didn't want to encumber the film in politics in any way,' said Kevin Misher, the producer.
"But being so perversely 'non-political' is itself a political act. If there were a dozen movies in which Tom Cruise kicked al-Qa'eda butt across the Hindu Kush, it would be reasonable to say, 'Hey, we'd rather deal with Matoban terrorism for a change.'
"But, when every movie goes out of its way to avoid being 'encumbered', it starts
to look like a pathology. Whenever some hapless studio exec finds he's
accidentally optioned a property that happens to have Islamist terrorists in it,
the first thing he does is change the enemy. Thus, the baddies in Tom Clancy's
The Sum of All Fears were de-Islamicised and transformed into German neo-Nazis,
a very pressing threat to America in 2005."
Hollywood is only just now beginning to release films that actually focus directly on the War On Terror. And what does it do? In films such as Syriana, Jarhead, and others, Breitbart observes that Hollywood comes at its political statements "from the perspective that really, we're the ones who are to blame for the predicament that we find ourselves in".
Hollywood Versus The Prosumer
But political bias is not the only problem Hollywood faces. "I think that there are many factors at play here, and I think that the technological revolution is probably the primary one", Breitbart says, adding, "I look at the way that young people are downloading music, movies, and videos. And videogames have become a much larger factor than I could have possibly predicted, in terms of what's actually capturing the imagination of young people."
Additionally, the growing prominence of what Alvin Toffler once dubbed "The Prosumer" threatens not just Hollywood, but the entire entertainment industry. Since the late 1990s, the quality of digital video has made rapid advances -- to the point where Hollywood moguls such as George Lucas have used the technology to replace film on projects with budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars, and at the opposite end of the spectrum, a growing number of "DIY" directors are using the increasingly affordable technology for their own efforts.
Several examples of these productions -- including documentaries such as blogger/documentarian Evan Coyne Maloney's Brainwashing 201, and Broken Promises: The United Nations at 60, narrated by actor Ron Silver, were featured this past October at the second annual Liberty Film Festival in West Hollywood.
Yet for the past several years, Hollywood has quietly been at war with Silicon Valley and its enabling technologies. For even longer, Hollywood elites have been involved in a much more visible war against conservatives. "These people have to understand -- or it has to be made plain to them", Breitbart emphasizes, "that they have created an environment in which it is as damaging to be a conservative in Hollywood in 2005, as it was to be a communist in Hollywood in 1955. (And he knows of whence he speaks: Breitbart's father-in-law was blacklisted in the 1950s.)
Hollywood Unity, Or Cinematic Balkanization?
But such ostracism may be gradually receding. In addition to the Red State-style documentaries, a new series of big budget conservative dramatic movies is slowly -- very slowly -- beginning to emerge as well. They're partially inspired by the blockbuster success of Mel Gibson's The Passion, and Peter Jackson's faithful adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy. Upcoming successors include Disney's The Chronicles of Narnia, and the recently discussed Bruce Willis film that (if completed) will be Hollywood's first pro-Iraq liberation film.
Do these films mark a new age of explicitly populist, conservative movies? Brian Anderson of City Journal, and author of 2005's South Park Conservatives wrote in the L.A. Times, "As tomorrow's Hollywood establishment turns less and less monolithically liberal, moviemakers might look for a nice bonus: the end of their box-office woes."
But Breitbart, for one, isn't looking forward to a balkanized cinema. He believes that the ideal situation would be one in which both liberals and conservatives can make peace and coexist in Hollywood to make films and television productions. "I just don't like this constantly stratified media", he says. "If that happens in the film world, you'll end up with your Air America productions on the one hand, and your Rush Limbaugh products on the other. Movies are one of the last places where we have a shared collective experience, and I think it would be horrible to think that there were ideological ghettos."But unless Hollywood can accept that diversity means working with people whose ideas and beliefs aren't monolithically compatible with their liberal mindset, that may be exactly what's required to prevent a Hollywood ending of the worst sort.